You are an organization that takes governance and compliance very seriously. You’ve exercised a tremendous amount of diligence when it comes to storing and archiving your digital content. You implemented policies, procedures, and retention schedules for all your content types. You’ve coordinated between the business, legal, and IT to ensure no stone is left unturned. You’re confident that you have maintained your digital content in accordance with regulatory requirements and that you have established a defensible position regarding your record keeping practices. Then, one day, years down the road, you are called upon to produce that content in a court of law. Only then do you discover that the digital content you have gone to such lengths to preserve, will not render, will not print, will not display to it true original fidelity. And in a worst case, the format may not be usable at all. What went wrong?

A commonly overlooked task when planning the deployment of a content services platform is determining the durability of the digital formats you choose to store and archive. I define a durable format as “a long-term archiving format, agreed to by the business, legal, and IT, that meets the organization's compliance and regulatory requirements for reproduction, for the retention period of the content.” In other words, how do I ensure that the technology of tomorrow will still support the digital formats I am storing today? Unfortunately, there is no single right answer. Today, there are a myriad of file formats, and their long-term viability is unknown. Leveraging the wrong formats could put your organization at risk should they someday become unusable.

The issue of a durable format is not new and over the years numerous mitigation strategies have been proposed such as retaining desktop machines with copies of the software and operating systems used at the time the content was created, and retaining that equipment in a disaster recovery site just in case? Others have suggested periodically rewriting the content but that can introduce an entire new set of problems to the mix. Some have even gone so far as to suggest reverting from digital back to “paper” for long-term archiving. Each of these suggestions is not conducive to operating as an organization driven by technology innovation.

So, how does this problem happen? The durability of a digital format can be compromised by a number of different factors. These are just some of those reasons:

  • The provider of the software that generates the format may have continued to improve its functionality and also decided to limit its backwards compatibility.
  • The vendor of the software that created a proprietary format may simply go out of business.
  • The industry supporting the format may choose to go a different direction.

Determining durable formats is a line of thinking rarely engaged when planning for the deployment of a digital storage or archiving solution. All of the thought goes into determining the proper container, with little to no thought about what you are putting into it. While there is no guarantee, there are steps you can take to minimize the long-term risk of unusable digital formats. A few are listed below:

Think it through up front. – Engage in a risk assessment. Consider not only your retention requirements, but also business drivers that could require you to maintain the content beyond its normal retention period, and for how long? (for example “Legal Holds”)

Revisit your decisions periodically. – A good decision today, may not hold true tomorrow. Whether it is every 5 years or every 10 years, sit down as an organization and reassess the risk.

Avoid proprietary formats if possible. – Stay with non-proprietary formats with open published standards.

Is the format proven and prevalent? - Determine how widespread the usage of the format is, and how many different tools are vested in leveraging that format? The more it is used, the longer it will remain viable.

Are there third-party components? – Formats can sometimes leverage third-party patents that can become problematic years down the road.

Backwards compatibility. – Has the vendor demonstrated a sense of obligation to ensure that previous versions of the format are compatible with the current version of the software?

In conclusion, not every organization has extended archiving requirements for their content where special consideration must be placed on the long-term viability of the digital format. But for those who see a potential risk, it is important mitigate that risk up front. Dealing with the issue before hand is much easier and less costly than trying to deal with it after you have hundreds of millions of objects in your repository.

Start with a risk assessment. Ensure you have representation from the business, legal, and IT. Map your use cases to the digital formats and identify your exposure. Then determine your appetite for the risk, and if there is risk, how you will deal with it?

A little up front due diligence will pay huge dividends for your organization in the long run.

To learn more, I would suggest reading this white paper: “Understanding the Need for Durable Formats.”

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